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Opponent Offense Preview: Alabama

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Time to see what big bad Bama has in store on offense.

NCAA Football: SEC Championship-Alabama vs Florida Dale Zanine-USA TODAY Sports

Alabama has made its money on the defensive side of the ball in recent years, but have no shortage of offensive weapons this year. For the Tide, it all starts with a bruising running game, but the added dimension of a true duel threat QB has the offensive wheels turning in Tuscaloosa.

The Basics

It wasn’t so long ago that Alabama laughed in the faces of spread out zone-read, hurry up, no huddle, “modern” offenses.

Citing player safety, Nick Saban tried to tear down the up tempo offense fad. Now it’s Saban using an athletic running QB and tempo to run teams off the field. Alabama used to have more of “game manager” types at QB - run the offense well, hit a couple plays when they are there, and don’t turn it over. Now instead of a game manager, they’ve got a game breaker at QB: Jalen Hurts. The first true freshman to start an SEC Championship Game in history led the Crimson Tide to a 13-0 season, leading the team’s offensive evolution.

There’s always a perception with Alabama that they’re a run-only team, that relies heavily on a stable of big and physical runners. While they like to identify with the run, Nick Saban has built a masterfully balanced offense, especially evident this year: 245 yards per game rushing, and 200 yards per game throwing.

Quarterback

Jalen Hurts: 2,592 yards, 22 TD, 9 INT, 65.3% completion, 7.69 yards/attempt

Looking at Hurts’ numbers, he seems like a strong passer. He’s got a solid TD/INT ratio for a freshman, 2,500+ yards, and over 7 yards an attempt. Plus throw in his 841 yards and 12 TDs rushing, and it’s no surprise why he was SEC Offense POY. He’s had more than few fantastic games this year, including being the first Bama quarterback to throw for 300 yards and rush for 100 in a single game (vs. Mississippi State). He also averages nearly 200 yards a game passing. That said, Jalen Hurts is most dangerous as a runner, and that is where he...hurts...teams the most. He’s got good size at 6’2” and 209 pounds, so he can both run through and around defenders.

While the passing numbers are solid, he often locks onto his first read and can’t adjust after that if the defense takes it away. He’s forced some throws this year that have gotten picked off, and he’s been known to put the ball on the ground occasionally, even fumbling his very first snap of his career. What’s scary about that, is that he rebounded from that fumbled snap and accounted for 4 TDs in the game: two rushing, two throwing. Containing him will be a challenge, as he can get to the edge very quickly and turn the corner for easy yards

It’s also worth noting that nearly all Alabama’s back up QBs have transferred, and should Hurts go down, they will turn to true freshman walk-on Montana Murphy.

Running Backs

Damien Harris: 131 rushes, 986 yards, 2 TDs, 7.5 yards/carry

Joshua Jacobs: 84 rushes, 548 yards, 4 TDs, 6.5 yards/carry

Bo Scarborough: 90 rushes, 539 yards, 7 TDs, 6.0 yards/carry

What stands out immediately about these running backs is their size, which I did not list above for the sake of not scaring the children. Harris, Jacobs, and Scarborough are 200+ pounds each, with Big Bo tipping the scales at 228 pounds. Damien Harris is the “starter” but all 3 have rotated in this season quite liberally, especially Scarborough the last 2 games, who has featured the most. All three have power to run inside, and speed to go outside. They can catch passes out of the backfield too, but this isn’t a big part of the offense.

This trio compares favorably to some past Alabama running backs: Harris is most similar to Eddy Lacy, Scarborough is like Derrick Henry, and Jacobs is like Mark Ingram. All three are unique in their own rights, but ultimately are known for their downhill running styles.

Looking at the run game as a whole, it’s actually Jalen Hurts who is the team’s leader in rushes and touchdowns (he’s 2nd in rush yards). Despite this, players like Bo Scarborough have come on late this season. Against Florida and Auburn, two of the best defenses in the SEC, Bo ran for 181 yards and 2 TDs on just 28 carries.

Wide Receivers and Tight Ends

ArDarius Stewart: 52 catches, 852 yards, 8 TDs

Calvin Ridley: 66 catches, 727 yards, 7 TDs

OJ Howard (TE): 37 catches, 445 yards, 2 TDs

Gehrig Dieter: 14 catches, 204 yards, 4 TDs

It’s easy to forget two of the best receivers currently in the NFL came out of Alabama and their ground heavy offense: Amari Cooper and Julio Jones. But that’s the thing, only casual observation would have one believe Alabama is a truly run first, run-all-the-time, team. Don’t get me wrong, they build their offense around the run game, but Alabama has featured a robust downfield passing attack these past few years, especially since Lane Kiffin joined the staff.

This season, the pass game is a bit simplified due to having a true freshman QB who is limited as a passer right now, and the success of the run game. Why over complicate things? To take advantage of their WR talent without risking too many throws over the middle, the Crimson Tide have featured a heavy dose of the jet sweep, which I learned today is technically a pass play (a very high percentage pass, mind you). Reliance on this play has skewed some pass game numbers and left the Alabama receivers with an uninspiring 12.1 yards per reception average.

One thing that surprised me was Alabama’s willingness to trust their receivers deep in the red zone and pass the ball into the end zone from the 1 yard line. Senior slot receiver Gehrig Dieter is the main weapon here, and while he only has 14 catches this year, he’s turned them into 4 TDs.

OJ Howard might be the biggest match up problem for Washington, however. The tight end is a potential 1st rounder in the NFL, with all the tools to be an elite player at the next level. He doesn’t have huge production this year, mostly due to the limitations of a TE in this offense, and a freshman QB, but he has all the tools. When he’s not on the line of scrimmage in two TE formations, he’s often in the slot, where he can use his 6’6” frame and catching ability to make tough grabs in the middle of the field.

Offensive Line

Alabama had a massive hole to fill on it’s offensive line this year: center. They lost 2015 Remington Award winner Ryan Kelly to the 1st round of the draft, and lost their RT Dominick Jackson. However, they did return All-American LT Cam Robinson, entering his 3rd year as a starter. To fill the void at center, they went with last year’s backup RG, Bradley Bozeman. True freshman Jonah Williams assumed the RT spot, and earned all SEC freshmen honors. Fun fact: Williams used to play offensive line, protecting our very own Jake Browning while he was in high school. Surprisingly, these are the only 2 Crimson Tide OL on All Conference teams.

Overall from my perspective, this is a solid but not spectacular OL. However at the end of the day, they lead the way for the best offense in the SEC in points per game, and 2nd in yards per game. They average 5.7 yards per rush as a team, and have only allowed 21 sacks - the same amount as Washington.

On the other hand, there’s one big crimson flag: tackles for loss allowed. Here the Tide rank 104th in the country, allowing 7 per game. Most of that is likely due to youth on the OL, but why do they not allow sacks but seemingly allow a lot of TFLs? It could be the increased reliance on the jet sweep this season gives a lot of opportunities for defenders to make plays in the backfield while receivers are running sideways. That, and Jalen Hurts’ scrambling ability have no doubt limited sacks.

Final Thoughts

Alabama’s offense has taken on new life with the addition of a dangerous running QB. The overall level of talent, especially on the OL, is not quite at previous year’s levels, but Alabama did have one of the SEC’s best and most explosive offenses this year. There’s no one single bell cow at RB, but the run game overall is just as potent as always.

Players like Bo Scarborough will be tough to contend with because of his size. How much will we miss Azeem Victor here? That being said, taking away Scarborough’s one long run of 85 yards this year, his season per carry average is nearly a yard less than Myles Gaskin’s.

The receivers are big and physical, but I like Washington’s secondary against just about anyone. In the pass game, it’s OJ Howard that can cause problems for Washington. He’s exactly the type of player who might not have had a huge season statistically, but with 3 weeks to prepare can be worked into a lot of different plays to take advantage of his size and athleticism.

This is an offense that can absolutely be slowed down by Washington’s defense. If Washington’s offense gifts Alabama short fields with turnovers, and keeps putting the defense back on the field, I think Washington’s D will struggle. But, if we’re talking “in a vacuum”, just our D vs their O, I like our chances. Alabama’s offensive line is far from elite, and they’re working with a true freshman QB. I’ll take it.